Monthly Archives: March 2017

5. Tacitus’s The Annals

“Renowned as a public orator and high official in Rome’s imperial administration, Tacitus achieved lasting fame with the historical writing of his later years, in which his political experience and literary skill combine to describe the character of 1st century Roman rule. Though soundly based, this work was often adapted, even distorted, to fit his own view of the empire, which he saw as a study in the pathology of tyranny, where power corrupted and impotence had led to degeneration. Tacitus exploited a brilliant style to emphasize, as well as to record, his interpretation.” (“Tacitus, Cornelius,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 982)

In their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider Books I and XIII-XVI of Tacitus’s The Annals. Book I describes the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, the immediate successor of Augustus, and Books XIII-XVI the reign of Nero. Although I was often confused by Tacitus’s references to people and events which I knew nothing or little about, I understood enough to appreciate his loathing of Nero, who had killed his brother Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, the Stoic philosopher Seneca (once his teacher), and numerous Roman senators, nobles, and officeholders. But contributing even more to Nero’s very bad reputation was the fire which almost destroyed Rome. It was even rumoured that he had started the fire but, as Tacitus indicates, it may have started accidentally.

However the fire started, Nero tried to get rid of the suspicion that he had ordered it by fastening the guilt on someone else. Here is what Tacitus says about his doing so:

“To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite torture s on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the supreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurator, Pontius Pilate, and a mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, and immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (The Annals in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 168)

Nero’s having killed so many family members and other important people and his treatment of Christians certainly demonstrate “the pathology of tyranny” which Tacitus viewed the history of Rome to be a study in.

As usual, Adler and Woolf follow their consideration of the reading with the discussion of a few questions about the reading. The last of the questions they pose about The Annals is whether “imperial rule over colonies and dependencies [is] compatible with constitutional government” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 67). After quoting the following passage from a later work by Tacitus, “That old passion for power which has been ever innate in man increased and broke out as the Empire grew in greatness. In a state of moderate dimensions equality was easily preserved; but when the world had been subdued, when all rival kings and cities had been destroyed, and men had leisure to covet wealth which they might enjoy in security the early conflicts between the patricians and the people were kindled into flame” (The Histories, in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, page 224), they suggest that he is implying that imperial expansion will lead to civil war because all want to share in the new luxuries and that despotic rule is the only way to avoid civil war. They conclude their discussion by saying that sympathy with this thought “may help explain the traditional American fear of entangling alliances or any form of empire building” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 68). I found this observation particularly interesting in light of the current discussion in the USA about involvement in alliances.


The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Last evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host studied Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) guided by The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups’s questionnaire for beginning groups.

LK 10:25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

LK 10:26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

LK 10:27 He answered: ” `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “

LK 10:28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

LK 10:29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

LK 10:30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. `Look after him,’ he said, `and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

LK 10:36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

LK 10:37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (NIV. All Biblical quotations are from the NIV.)

The questionnaire, which I’d distributed the previous week, was divided into two parts, Looking into the Scriptures and My Own Story. We shared our answers.

Looking into the Scriptures

The first three questions asked if we thought that Jesus knew that the Samaritans were people of mixed ancestry and religion (1 Kings 17:24-41), that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was dangerous because of robbers who waylaid travellers, and that a person who touched a corpse was unclean for several days (Numbers 19:11). We agreed that he knew these things.

The next two questions asked if we thought that the priest and the Levite were justified in passing by the wounded man if there was a good chance that the wounded person was playing dead to trap them or if they were in a rush to get to their religious duties in Jericho. Although we sympathized with the priest’s and the Levite’s situation, we felt that they weren’t justified in passing by the wounded man.

The last two questions were multiple-choice questions:
– Why do you think the Samaritan stopped when the others “passed by on the other side”?
– Why do you think Jesus told this parable in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?”
We didn’t agree in our answers to these questions. For the first question our most popular answer was that the Samaritan knew what it mean to be a hurting person and have people pass by, and for the second question we were divided between Jesus’ telling the parable to let the lawyer answer his own question and his telling it to use the case history approach which lawyers use.

My Own Story
1. What do you do when people come up to you on a street corner and ask for a handout? – Besides answering the question, we had an interesting and enlightening discussion of what we thought we should do when this happens.
2. Now that you’ve read this parable, who would you say is your “neighbour”? – Our most popular choice was that based on the parable our neighbour is anyone who approaches us with a need.
3. If you had to call upon someone outside of your family at 3 o’clock in the morning because of a deep personal problem, on whom would you call? – We were divided among our pastor, a close friend, and someone who had conquered the problem. We also agreed that even before calling on one of them, we should take the problem to God in prayer.

4. Old Testament and New Testament

“The Western tradition is heir to Judaeo-Christian as well as to Greco-Roman thought. The Bible is an important source for our basic political ideas….

“The biblical questions and answers differ from those in Greco-Roman thought. For the latter, the problem of the form of government concerns the alternatives of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In the Bible, it concerns the choice between God and man, between divine and human law. The question is not one of freedom or slavery in a political sense, but adherence or nonadherence to the rule of God. This concern played a part in Western political thought down to fairly recent times.” (“Old Testament…New Testament” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 43-44)

Adler and Wolff go on to consider three unconnected texts from the Bible: 1 Samuel, Matthew 22:15-22, and Acts 21:1-26:32). I’ll quote and comment on at least part of each of them. All Biblical quotations are from the ESV.

1 Samuel 8:4-22

“The selection from the Old Testament deals with the problem of how a people which has agreed to be ruled by God can appoint a human king. Is there a basic tension between religious and political loyalties?” (Adler and Wolff, page 43)

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
(Verses 10-18 record Samuel’s warning to the people of the ways of the king who would rule over them, some inevitable but others abuse of power.)
19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

The Jewish people regarded themselves as being ruled over by God Himself who had made a covenant with them and appointed Moses, Joshua, and a succession of judges to lead them on His behalf. In the years before the above passage the prophet Samuel fulfilled this role, but having grown old he had recently appointed his two sons to judge Israel (the Jewish people). Unfortunately they “accepted bribes and perverted justice” for the sake of “dishonest gain” (8:3). Thus the elders asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, giving as reasons for their request his age and the misconduct of his sons. However their real reason is revealed in their answer to his warning them of the ways of a king–they wanted to be like the nations around them with a king to lead them in battle. When they rejected the warning and continued to insist on having a king. God told Samuel to do what they wanted.

Actually God had long before foreseen such an event occurring, telling the Israelites in the wilderness through Moses, “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you, whom the LORD your God will choose,” and giving them some rules regarding those kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The king was to be chosen by God and to be under him just as the judges had been, but the king would reign like the kings of the nations around Israel, as Samuel warned the elders, and would be succeeded by a son.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “Is there really such a form of government as theocracy [rule by God}? Or are there only various forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, each of which may claim to be led by God?” (page 50). In their discussion of the question they distinguish between Moses, Joshua, and the judges, who were viceregents for God, and kings, who although they were picked by God had more autonomy than judges.

Matthew 22:15-22

“The passage from Matthew deals with the problem of conforming to the administrative requirements of a pagan empire. Whom shall we serve, God or Caesar?” (Adler and Wolff, pages 43-44).

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Two groups with opposing views of Roman rule came together to try to trap Jesus, the Pharisees who were ardent nationalists opposed Roman rule and the Herodians who supported the Roman rule of the Herods. They began by flattering Jesus and then sprang the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus realized that if he replied positively to the question the Pharisees would accuse him of impiety towards God but if he replied negatively to it the Herodians would accuse him of sedition towards the Roman empire. Instead he asked for a coin, drew attention to Caesar’s image on it, and said that it belonged to the imperial rulers. Thus he separated the political and religious realms and said to render to each what belongs to it.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the things which are Caesar’s, and what are the things which are God’s?” (page 52). They open their discussion of the question by observing that in Israel even under the monarchy the sacred and secular realms were hard to separate but that in a universal faith like Christianity separation between them is necessary. They go on to consider which functions belong to the state and which to the church, looking at their roles in education and in contractual matters. Then they consider what is to be done if there is conflict between the commands of the state and those of religion. Finally they consider whether the state must respect all religious practices and whether the church must respect all secular laws.

I like John Calvin’s comment on “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Here is part of what he says:

“The error Christ wanted to refute is the idea that a people cannot belong to God unless it is free of the yoke of human rule. Paul presses the same point home. No man should think he is giving less service to the one God when he obeys human laws, pays tax, or bows his head to accept any other burden. In short he declares that God’s Law is not violated or His worship offended if the Jews in external government obey the Romans. I think that he is looking askance at their hypocrisy in allowing God’s worship to be violated in so many things…yet taking up with such burning zeal a trivial matter…. But to get His message across to the man in the street Christ is content to distinguish the spiritual Kingdom of God from the political order and round of current affairs. Keep the distinction firm: the Lord wishes to be sole Lawgiver for the government of souls, with no rule of worship to be sought from any other source than His Word, and our adherence to the only pure service there enjoined, yet the power of the sword, the laws of the land and decisions of the courts, in no way prevent the perfect will of God from flourishing in our midst…. In short the overthrow of civil order is rebellion against God, and obedience to leaders and magistrates is always linked to the worship and fear of God, but if in return the leaders usurp the rights of God they are to be denied obedience as far as possible short of offence to God.” (A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke in Calvin’s Commentaries, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972, volume III, pages 26-27)

Acts 23:26-30; 25:14-21

“And the third text, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows how the Roman concept of citizenship conflicts with the demand of religious orthodoxy” (Adler and Wolff, page 44).

26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”

14 …”There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.”

Adler and Woolf survey the incidents between Paul’s being rescued from a Jewish mob by a Roman tribune and his soldiers in Acts 21 to his appearing before the Jewish king in Acts 26 prior to his being sent to Rome. All that I’ve given above are the letter written by the tribune, Claudius Lysias, to the governor of Judea, Felix, and what the successor of Felix, Festus, told the Jewish king, Agrippa II, about Paul in preparation for Paul’s appearing before Agrippa.

The tribune’s letter omits a detail that could have gotten him in trouble. He’d been about to have Paul flogged to find out why the mob was so angry with him when Paul asked, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” It wasn’t, and immediately the tribute countermanded his order that Paul be flogged. Thus Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to escape being flogged.

Festus’ account to Agrippa refers to another time when Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship. Having heard the Jews’ charges against Paul and Paul’s defence, Festus had concluded that the issue was a religious one and proposed Paul’s going to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jews. To avoid this Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the rights and duties of citizenship especially with respect to religion?” (page 53). They prelude their discussion of the question by comparing Roman citizenship and American citizenship with respect to the rights of a person with either when in another province or country. Then they show that religious toleration (a citizen’s being able to oppose the state on religious matters) is only possible where there is true separation of state and religion. Finally they quote the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” and present these questions to demonstrate that the problems of religious tolerance are complex:

“Does a citizen only have the right to freedom of religious belief and worship or are there certain duties connected with this? Does the state have any rights against the church? Does the separation of church and state imply not only that there is no established religion, but also that secularism is officially advocated by the state? Or is secularism as much a religion as any of the particular faiths? Is it consistent with the doctrine of separation of church and state to include in the oath of allegiance the phrase ‘under God’? Does this take away religious freedom from citizens who do not believe in God?” (pages 54-55)

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Last evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host studied Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful or unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) guided by The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups’s questionnaire for beginning groups.

MT 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

MT 18:22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

MT 18:23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

MT 18:26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,’ he begged, `and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

MT 18:28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

MT 18:29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

MT 18:30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

MT 18:32 “Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,’ he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

MT 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (NIV; all Biblical quotations are from the NIV))

The questionnaire was divided into two parts, Looking into the Scriptures and My Own Story. For each part I allowed at least five minutes for members of the group to answer the four multiple choice questions in it and then we shared our answers. Between doing the two parts, we discussed three of the five DIG questions that The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups asked about the parable.

Looking into the Scriptures
1. Do you suppose Peter had a special reason for asking how many times he needed to forgive his brother and, if so, what was it? – All of us chose, “he just wanted to know.”
2. What is the parable that Jesus told really about? – The only option that more than one of us chose was, “how to say thanks for God’s forgiveness.”
3. How would you describe the attitude of the servant toward the one who had wronged him? – We split between “don’t let the scoundrel off the hook” and “let him suffer.”
4. What’s the principle for you as a Christian in dealing with someone who has wronged you? – The majority of us chose, “only the forgiven know how to forgive.”

1. Offenders in Jesus’ day were forgiven up to three times; a fourth offense need not be forgiven. What does Jesus’ answer say about forgiveness in the kingdom?
– We agreed that Jesus’ answer said that forgiveness in the kingdom should be unlimited.
3. How does Jesus’ point in verse 35 compare with 6:12? Do we forgive others so God will forgive us, or does God forgive us so that we will have a forgiving attitude?
– Matthew 6:12 says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Although both it and verse 35 seem to favour the first option, we agreed with the second option. Leon Morris comments on 6:12, “This must surely be taken as an aspiration rather than a limitation, or none of us would be forgiven; our forgivenesses are so imperfect. But the prayer recognizes that we have no right to seek forgiveness for our own sins if we are withholding forgiveness from others, and perhaps even that we cannot really seek it (The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1992, page 147).
4. Based on this parable, is God’s forgiveness of us limited or unlimited? Conditional or unconditional? Likewise, our forgiveness of others?
– We agreed that God’s forgiveness of us is unlimited. Although our initial reaction was that God’s forgiveness of us is unconditional, we went on to agree that our initial reaction was based on our theology and that the parable and Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sin, your Father will not forgive your sins,” indicate that God’s forgiveness of us is conditional on our forgiving others. We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on how to reconcile the two. We agreed that our forgiveness of others should be unlimited and unconditional.

My Own Story
My Own Story’s being personal, I won’t report here on our answers to the questions in it.
1. What would you do [about the situation given in a case study presented in the questionnaire]?
2. What have you found helpful in dealing with sour relationships?
3. Who is the easiest [and who] is the hardest person for you to forgive?
4. How could you pass on God’s forgiveness to those who have wronged you?

3. Plutarch’s Lives – Tiberius Gracchus & Gaius Gracchus

“Political and social ideas which may have been remote abstractions for us now take on life. From Plato we got the image of an ideal state, from Aristotle the insight that the conflict of the rich and the poor is a permanent feature of political life. In the present reading, we see what actually happened in Sparta when two young, idealistic kings tried to restore the virtue, austerity, and glory of olden times. Their efforts to divide land equally and cancel debts met the implacable opposition of the wealthy classes. The lives of both kings ended in tragic and violent deaths, one by legal lynching, the other by suicide. Plutarch also tells us the parallel story of two brothers from a noble family in Rome who became leaders of the common people and sponsored a program of social reforms. They, too, met the opposition of the wealthy and well-born. One of them was lynched by a mob of senators. The other escaped a similar fate by suicide.” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 31-32)

My reading about the two Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius (Caius in Plutarch) Gracchus, in Plutarch’s Lives was not my first encounter with them. I’d previously met them in Ancient History in university and possibly even earlier in Ancient and Medieval History in high school. However about all that I remembered about them from those earlier encounters was that they met their deaths trying to win rights for the ordinary people. Besides reading Plutarch’s accounts of their lives (guided by Adler and Woolf), I read the articles about them in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Tiberius and Gaius were born about 163 and 153 B.C., respectively, in a distinguished patrician (upper class) family. Tiberius served with distinction as a junior officer in the Third Punic War (147-146 B.C.), the last of three wars between Rome and Carthage in northern Africa. In 137 B.C. his personal integrity and family reputation enabled him to save the Roman army in Spain from destruction by signing a peace treaty with the Numanites.

In 133 B.C. Tiberius was elected to the office of tribune, a position designed to protect the rights and interests of the plebeians (the lower class) from the patricians. Immediately he began pushing for a program of land reforms. Much land acquired by the Roman state in its conquest of Italy had fallen into the hands of large landholders, who drove peasants off their farms and worked the land with slaves. The peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome, having to subsist on handouts due to a scarcity of paid work. Tiberius invoked an old law that limited the amount of land that could be owned by a single individual and established a commission to oversee the redistribution of illegal land holdings from the large landowners to the poor and homeless in Rome in plots large enough to support themselves and their families. The large landowners would be paid for the land that they had to forfeit.

Knowing that the Senate (composed of patricians) wouldn’t approve the proposed land reforms, Tiberius took them directly to the Popular Assembly, which was legal but insulting to the Senate and thus alienated senators who might otherwise have supported him. The Senate persuaded another tribune, Marcus Octavius, to use his veto to prevent the submission of the bill to the Assembly. Tiberius got the Assembly to vote to remove Octavius from office. The bill then passed, but the expulsion of Octavius alienated many of Tiberius’ supporters, their feeling that it undermined the authority of the tribunate.

Another complication arose in effecting the land reforms–the Senate allocated trivial funds to the commission that had been appointed to carry them out. However when the king of Pergamum died, he left his kingdom and fortune to Rome and Tiberius used his power as tribune to assign the fortune to the land commission. His doing so challenged the Senate’s traditional control of public finances and foreign affairs and increased its opposition to Tiberius and his policies. It threatened to prosecute him at the end of his term as tribune for his actions against Octavius.

Tiberius responded by standing for a second term in 132 B.C. Unsuccessful in getting a consul (chief magistrate) to stop the elections by force, the senators started a riot. Although it may have begun as an attempt to disperse the electoral meeting, it ended with the clubbing to death of Tiberius and about 300 of his supporters and the throwing of their bodies into the river. Following the massacre many more of Tiberius’ followers were punished. However to mollify the people, the Senate allowed the land commission to continue.

Gaius’ political career began in 133 B.C. when he was one of the three members of Tiberius’ land commission (the others were Tiberius and his father-in-law). In 126 B.C. he became a quaestor, an official concerned mainly with finance, in the Roman province of Sardinia. In 123 B.C. he was elected to be a tribune. Besides reviving his brother’s land reform program, he proposed laws providing free clothing for the common soldiers, giving all Italians the right to vote in elections, setting lower prices on corn, and joining three hundred knights with the three hundred senators who sat as judges; Plutarch says that he gained his greatest reputation by the last of these. Most of his legislation passed and he was elected to a second tribunate in 122 B.C.

Feeling threatened by Gaius’ popularity and legislation, the Senate backed another tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus. He was told not to incite violence but instead to propose legislation that would please the common people and make it known that he had the Senate’s backing. His doing so made some people more kindly toward the Senate. As well, not wanting to share the benefits of Roman citizenship, even the plebians didn’t approve of Gaius’ franchise bill that sought to extend Roman citizenship to Latin-speaking allies and the status of Latin allies to other Italic people. The bill was rejected and Gaius failed to secure election to a third term as tribune.

A new consul (chief administrator), Lucius Opimius, a strong conservative who wanted to restore power to the Senate, made it his mission to unseat Gaius. Aided by Drusus, he set out to repeal as many of Gaius’ measures as possible. On the day that he planned to repeal them, a scuffle arose between the supporters of the two opposing groups on the Capitoline Hill which led to the death of an attendant of Opimius. This gave him a pretext for action and he got the Senate to pass a bill giving him the right to protect the state and suppress tyrants. He organized a heavily armed force and the next day a massacre followed. Knowing that he’d be executed if he were arrested, Gaius committed suicide. 3000 of his supporters were subsequently arrested and put to death. All of his reforms were undermined except the grain laws.

However the people, “though humble, and affrighted at the time, did not fail before long to let everyone see what respect and veneration they had for the memory of the Gracchi. They ordered their statues to be made and set up in public view; they consecrated the places where they were slain, and thither brought the first-fruits of everything, according to the season of the year, to make their offerings. Many came likewise thither to their devotions, and daily worshipped there, as at the temple of the gods.” (Plutarch, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, volume 14 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 689)

Following their introduction to Plutarch’s accounts of the lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (and of the two Spartan kings referred to in the quotation with which I opened this post) in The Great Ideas Program Adler and Wolff pose some questions to provoke thought about them. One that prompted thought in me was, “Were the demands of these reformers just?” Adler and Woolf begin their response to the question by observing that taking property from the very rich and giving it to the poor may have had a worthy end and been good for the state but go on to ask if it accorded with the just rights of the rich. “Is what these men proposed and executed not expropriation? Is employing such a means justified by their end?” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 40)

Reading about the lives of Tiberius and Gauis Gracchus prompted me to reflect on the contemporary situation in the United States. Like them its president, Donald Trump is a member of the upper class acting (or claiming to be acting) for the lower class; like them he has sparked opposition from those wanting to maintain the status quo and their position in it; and like them he has responded aggressively. Hopefully his life won’t end the way that their lives did.

The quotation from The Great Ideas Program with which I introduced this post refers to two Spartan kings as well as to two Roman brothers. The kings were Agis IV and Cleomenes III and, in doing the The Great Ideas Program reading, I read encyclopedia articles on them as well as Plutarch’s accounts of their lives. However I decided to consider in this post just the Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, whom as I observed above I’d encountered earlier.